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Wednesday, 21 May 2014
The False Moon War: Chapter 8
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Chapter 8. The Citadel
The solar engine on the bastiladon's back was a tiny island light in an ocean of blackness. As the days in the endless tunnel stretched on to weeks, the solar engine gradually dimmed and the unusual vitality which energized the party also faded. They became listless and docile. Even Bessie's single minded plod slowed.
At some point in the interminable night, the rough, rocky floor of the tunnel had crumbled to sand which made the going more effortful. When the last glow died, Rychek feared that Bessie would stop entirely and that this would be their tomb, but they were not plunged into total darkness.
As their eyes adjusted to the dark they could see that the walls and roof of the tunnel had receded to form a vast chamber. The ceiling was dotted with tiny points of light which glittered as hard and as cold as diamonds.
Bessie trudged on towards a distant glow which was intensifying in the distance. The glow overpowered the light of the diamonds and grew in power until, suddenly a fiery orb slid above the horizon. All about them the ruddy glow revealed an endless sea of billowing sand dunes.
"This is a funny swamp," murmured Mahtis.
The rays of the early morning sun were captured by the parabolic mirrors atop Chotec's engine and were directed into the cube at the heart of the apparatus. The front facet glowed anew. In Lustria, the prism had glowed with a subtle greenish cast which echoed the light of the sun filtered through a dense canopy of jungle. Here, in the deserts of Araby, the solar facet adopted a harsh, yellow-white hue.
The energizing rays also thawed the numb hearts of the lizardmen. Soon they were prosecuting their quest with their usual vigour.
"Our best infantry unit is Saurus Warriors with hand weapons and shields."
"No. It's Temple Guard."
Rychek sat perched on Bessie's shoulder in resigned annoyance.
Rychek spun around in alarm to investigate the unusual sound. He saw Mahtis holding two dazed saurus by the backs of their necks.
"Skink Cohorts with Kroxigor." he rumbled. The scaly giant shook the pair so that their heads lolled in a parody of agreement, then pushed them off the sides of the platform. The sauri landed in the sand like two large sacks of tubers.
When the pair returned to their dubious senses they found that Bessie had continued her march without them. There was no fear of getting lost, because her footprints in the soft sand clearly marked her path over the next dune, and the one after that.
The harsh sun beat down on the despondent pair as they trudged in pursuit.
"It's too hot," Joe observed.
"You are a big whiner. My feet hurt," Bob replied without looking up.
"And you are a big sissy."
"Big whiner," Bob was having trouble mustering his usual enthusiasm.
"Big sissy," Joe was no better off.
Bob halted in his tracks.
"Who are you calling a big chicken!?" he demanded with his claws on his hips.
As Joe ran away as fast as he could go, Bob felt a blissful respite from the sun’s glare beneath a deep shadow which was suddenly cast over him.
"Oh, Mahrlecht," Bob swore as he looked up into the undead eyes of a carrion vulture of stupendous size.
The creature scooped him up in a rotting claw and launched itself into the air with two beats of its decomposing wings. Joe was snatched from the brow of the next rise.
The vulture rose on an invisible column of air until the enormous dunes below seemed no larger than ripples on a pond. Joe fancied he could see a trail of marks in the sand leading to a black speck which was toiling through the desert. The bird did not pause as it soared over the minute bastiladon and sped further eastward.
After some time, the carrion vulture tucked in its wings and stooped towards a toy castle. The fortress looked like it had been designed by an emotionally challenged child. Its massive walls were constructed of dreary basalt slabs. The disturbingly phallic towers scattered along the outer curtain wall were surmounted by crowns of spiky battlements. The inner keep maintained a hostile vigil through mullioned windows reminiscent of glowering eye sockets. Every possible surface was decorated with skull motifs.
As their captor swooped lower, the sauri could see that the fortress was not a toy, but indeed a work of such scale and arrogance that only a madman could have commissioned it. An emotionally challenged madman.
The huge vulture deposited them, without harm, on the flagstones before the yawning portcullis of the inner keep. As Bob and Joe gawped in disbelief at the tasteless display of architectural brutality they were approached by an ancient dwarf.
The dwarf was lavishly dressed from his ornate helm down to his pointy velvet slippers. Jewelled rings decorated every finger. His magnificent snowy white beard and hair were gathered by bands of burnished gold and tumbled to trail along the floor. His white eyebrows and beard obscured most of his features. His most striking attributes were his hopeless, despairing eyes.
The dwarf regarded the guests in silence for a moment. "May the Lord of the Citadel have mercy on you. Please follow."
The dwarf turned to pass through the arch and revealed that his extravagant garb was but a facade. His bare back and posterior were exposed to the elements. Bob and Joe, who possessed not one stitch of clothing between them, shrugged and followed their guide.
The trio crossed an inner court and ascended a seemingly endless stair. They saw no other inhabitants, but they heard the sound of anguished cries and mountains of coins being counted. The citadel seemed to be populated by the despairing and the frustrated.
The lizardmen finally reached the top a pace behind their guide.
An icy voice spoke. "You may go."
These words were directed to the guide. The dwarf performed a curious bow. the bow was not curious. Just the fact that he turned away from his master and guests before bowing. In doing so, he revealed a view barely more palatable than that of Morrslieb, the Chaos Moon, itself.
Bob and Joe examined their surroundings. They were in a large chamber atop the keep. Light was admitted through four bay windows which opened to each cardinal direction and led out to a broad terrace surrounded by dizzying voids. The inner walls of the room were lined with shelves festooned with hundreds of boxes displaying brightly coloured and alluring images.
The dominating feature of the room was a table. This was modelled to resemble a variety of terrain features from the real world, except that they were wrong. Tiny trees writhed in anger, in places the surface of the ground gave way to reveal rockeries of skulls, and steep model hills reared above the plain surmounted by shrines to hate and violence.
Along one edge of the table were a collection of vials of brightly coloured potions. Beside them were a scattering of cruelly bristled brushes, no doubt used for torture, but on a miniature scale.
The collection of colourless dismembered representations of tiny beings upon the table edge was most unsettling. Each had a semblance of realism, but the proportions were wrong. Some tiny warriors were burdened by weapons too large for their frames. Others had armour which would clearly prevent effective movement.
Each one of the incomplete warriors had an expression of disbelief on its tiny face. "What the mahrlecht? How the did I end up in this situation?" seemed to be the consensus.
"Welcome, Bob." their host stepped out of the shadows. "I am the Great Pharaoh, Akhseptsamex. I rule the Citadel.”
He was a skeleton. His dusty bones were ornamented with Nehekharan headdress, jewellery and cloak.
The speaker continued, “I see that you have met my little friends."
Bob and Joe cast about, looking for the "friends'' which the pharaoh had referred too. Eventually Bob's eyes rested on the miniature warriors at the edge of the table.
"Oh, I see!" a gleam of understanding flickered on his face, "Your little 'friends'! Where I come from, there is this guy that thinks his little 'friends' are real too! You see, he comes from a remote area of Lustria, and it gets very cold and dark and lonely and...."
"Silence!" The skeleton stamped his foot. "They are real! I have devoted a lonely eternity to ruling them! Why can no one see that they are real? Why doesn't my wife understand me? She has banished me to the attic because she won't let me play with them in the house, but they are real! Real, I tell you!"
Bob briefly contemplated a diplomatic way of telling the mighty Lord of the Citadel to get some perspective, when Joe beckoned him over. He had opened one of the boxes from a shelf marked “Lizardmen”. Inside, three extremely ugly flying reptiles were harrying a large toad for no apparent reason. Some powerful magic spell had reduced them to miniature size.
"They ARE real," Joe mouthed.
Akhseptsamex had regained his composure. "Indeed. I have collected each of them from the corners of this world, and from fevered imagination. People say I must be crazed...."
"Well, that WOULD explain it," Joe mouthed silently.
"Silence! ...Well, I mean…. Raaarrgh!" the skeleton thrust with his snake tipped sceptre. There was a flash of unearthly light and Joe was transformed into the form of a large frog roughly the size of a human head.
"Noooooo! What have you done to him?" Bob protested, "Joe, can you still talk?"
"I can still talk! Ribbit! That's lucky!"
"Noooooo!" Bob clenched his fists in frustration, "Why can he still talk?"
"I am the Lord of Citadel. I can do what I like! Look at this. For no particular reason I have made a magical flying carpet, which doubles as a cloak of invisibility. And it also grants immunity from any attack other than Frenzied Killing Blows from flying reptiles!" The skeleton rummaged in a box marked "Arcane Items" and pulled out a tiny rolled up rug.
"But that doesn't make any sense! Ribbit!"
"It doesn't matter that it makes no sense. All that matters is that fools will pay. I offer many powerful items and units to bolster your army. I decide what rules they fight by. I make them available for generals to deploy. At a cost..."
These last words were followed by a heavy pause. The lizardmen understood that the cost would be great. Eternal bondage at least.
"Truly, Lord of Citadel, you have no soul! Ribbit."
"Why have you brought us here? If it was just to turn Joe into an amphibian, then obviously I am grateful, but..."
"I brought you here because you, Bob, are too awesome. If you were small and irrelevant, I might have ignored you, but you have special attributes. You have Special Rules which are a threat to my reality."
"What do you mean? Croak!"
"He," Akhseptsamex stabbed a bony finger at Bob's chest, "has two incompatible Special Rules. He has the Rule of "Luck" and the Rule of "Destiny". They are opposite, and they have no right to exist together. It is the prerogative of the Lord of Citadel alone to make inexplicable, illogical or contradictory Special Rules. It is what is expected of me.
"I will test this Bob's general-ship and mastery of the Law of Six in a game of skill and chance. If he is over powered, I will emasculate him and break his power."
"Ha! Croak! You can't change people. In particular, you can't change Bob. I have devoted my life to that cause. Waste of time."
"Can I not change people? Have you not met my White Dwarf? He once had pride and dignity. He was capable of discriminating thought. Now he parrots whatever words I, the Lord of Citadel, place in his mouth. In every marketplace he extols the virtues of the Citadel, and the Citadel alone."
Akhseptsamex leered and pointed his sceptre at Joe's froggy form. The amphibian shrank until he was no more than a half inch tall. The lord stooped to pick him up and placed him carefully on the central table twelve inches from one edge.
"Here is your champion, General Bob."
to Chapter 9: The Law of Six